Ask Hannah Holmes

Hannah Holmes

Home Rx

Realtor/science writer/self-proclaimed “house geek” Hannah Holmes on expunging moss from shingles, the ugly truth about early kitchens, and more.

Illustrations by Christine Mitchell Adams

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Send your Maine home or garden conundrum to [email protected] and we may feature it in an upcoming column.

There’s moss growing on the cedar shingles on my oceanfront home. Cause for concern?

moss on shingles

Yup. Mosses are itty-bitty plants that harness solar energy to extract nutrients from soil. But they are also happy to extract nutrients from your shingles. This has multiple ramifications, none of which is ideal from a shingle’s perspective.

One, the moss is devouring your shingles. Two, with its sponge-like body, moss holds water — right up against your wooden shingles, keeping them damp. Three, the moss eventually lifts the shingles, which both weakens the shingle, and allows water to seep under it. (All true of asphalt roof shingles too.)

What moss hates most is sunlight, so we tend to find it growing on the north side of buildings or where trees shade the roof. But moss also shrinks from a variety of elements. Zinc or copper strips added across the roof will help prevent roof moss. Chlorine will kill moss, but won’t prevent it, and likewise commercial sprays from the hardware store. The simplest cure may be to spray the moss occasionally with three cups of vinegar cut with two gallons of water. Let the solution sit for about an hour, then gently scrub and rinse the shingles. You might want to test the mixture on an inconspicuous spot, in case it bleaches your shingles.


What was the typical layout of a Federal home in Maine, and how were the rooms used?

typical layout of a Federal home in Maine

Bear with me for a brief review of the kitchen, a room so odious that most of home-design history is a campaign to escape from it.

In the beginning, mobs of people shared one room, working, sleeping, and cooking in the same big lodge or cave. Cooking was a loud, smoky, bloody, feathery, grain-pounding, marrowbone-smashing, smelly, sweaty, eye-watering business.

Eventually, single-family groups shared one room. The noise and odor of cooking remained central. But as various civilizations accumulated wealth, humans began adding “not-the-kitchen” rooms to their homes. In some cultures, these spaces became showrooms to impress visitors. They were built near the entrance, and far from the kitchen.

Wealthier homeowners could afford more fancy rooms, and as they proliferated, their names did too: parlor; dining room; drawing room; morning room; sitting room; smoking room; library; living room; and so on. In most Federal houses, a central hall presents a fancy room on each side of the front door. Down the hall in the private reaches of the house, you might find a study or bedroom on one side and either a kitchen or a pantry/workroom on the other. Ideally, the kitchen was relegated to a room off the back of the house or to the basement.

It’s interesting that this general layout persists in home design, even though we no longer pluck chickens in the kitchen: formal, public rooms to the front; messy, private ones to the rear.

What’s the best wood flooring for a house with dogs?

dog-proof flooring

The best “wood” floor for dogs is wood-patterned ceramic tile. Fifteen years ago, I tried “butcher-block-style” bamboo because it’s reputed to be among the toughest options. While it has held up fairly well, there are a few thin slices within the planks that are obviously softer, and now more claw-scarred, than others. “Strand-woven” bamboo, however, has a much harder surface than the original butcher-block styles. And most recently, “unfurled” bamboo, which spreads bamboo’s hard skin across the surface of the flooring, is promoted as bombproof. (Bombproof is not quite as sturdy as dog-proof, FYI.)

As you shop, compare each option’s Janka hardness score. Local white pine rates a squishy 380; red oak is 1,290; and the hardest domestic option is hickory, at 1,820. Strand-woven bamboo runs in the 3,800-and-up range. But the finish coating is important too. Prefinished planks are much more durable than those that are varnished after they’re installed.


Are bird feeders safe in Maine? I’ve heard they can attract rats.

rat at a bird feeder

It’s true that rats are enjoying a population explosion, just as squirrels and chipmunks have in recent years. But as a rule, population booms are widespread events, caused by too much food, or too few predators, or both. One bird feeder, more or less, isn’t likely to upset the balance of nature.

“If you put up a bird feeder and then see a rat, then you’re feeding the rat that was already there,” says Derek Lovitch, who with wife, Jeannette, owns Freeport Wild Bird Supply. Furthermore, he says, if you feed high-quality seed, birds won’t throw so much of it on the ground for scavengers. Lovitch says chickadees weigh each black-oil sunflower seed before transporting it to a tree to open. Lightweight seeds, which could be stale or underdeveloped, are given the flick of disdain. Rats do not experience disdain, least of all culinary disdain. So they will add your birdfeeder to their nightly rounds to collect those rejected seeds.

Hannah Holmes is a real estate broker at Keller Williams Realty Greater Portland and the author of four science titles, including The Secret Life of Dust and Suburban Safari. A veteran renovator of old houses, she blogs about humans and their territorial issues at